I recently re-read Dubliners for the first time in a decade or so. As I did, I was looking to understand the structure of the stories in order to improve as a writer, but I also had in mind a comment I had come across at some point in my internet wanderings: that Joyce didn’t like his characters.
“The Dead” is rightly celebrated as one of the greatest novellas ever written (you can download it/read it online at Project Gutenberg). So much so that is often discussed out of the context of the entire collection. I agree that it stands on its own. What I discovered in this re-read, however, is that it is best experienced within the flow of the previous stories, and even more importantly, helps the readers understand the previous stories better.
The 14 stories that lead up to “The Dead” are an unsparing look at various slices of the Irish lower/lower-middle classes. I think that for many readers the pathetic-ness of these characters lives may overwhelm the pathos of the stories, especially since Joyce has come to mean impenetrable elitism. He very well may have intended to be eviscerating. But I don’t think so. At least not fully so: I think there’s also admiration, appreciation and recognition of the difficulties of the characters individual lives, and, above all, an attempt to understand their Irish-ness. This mixture, these layers are overtly treated in “The Dead”, and it’s that treatment that made me reflect back on the other stories and see them that way.
In “The Dead”, Gabriel and his relation to Ireland are challenged twice: first overtly by Miss Ivors and then indirectly by his wife Gretta.
The Miss Ivors challenge occurs early in the annual party hosted by Gabriel’s aunts. She confronts him about his loosely-veiled pseudonym, which has been using to write literary reviews for a pro-Britan paper. This perplexes him. Miss Ivors assures him that she was only joking and invites him on a summer excursion to the Aran Isles, which are off the west coast of Ireland. He is perplexed not only by the invitation but also why he would change his routine of a summer cycling excursion to France and Belgium. The following exchange takes place:
“And haven’t you your own land to visit,” continued Miss Ivors, “that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?”
“O, to tell you the truth,” retorted Gabriel suddenly, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!”
When Miss Ivors asks why, Gabriel has no answer. He begins to rewrite his speech (his aunts have him give one each year) in his head:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the generation which is now on the wane among us may have had its faults but for my part I think it had certain qualities of hospitality, of humour, of humanity, which the new and very serious and hypereducated generation that is growing up around us seems to lack.”
Of course, he doesn’t get to aim his spring-loaded rhetoric at Miss Ivors because she decides to not stick around for dinner, but he does include it in his speech, even expands upon it, although he brings it around to his aunts in order to compliment their hospitality, which is roundly applauded by the other guests, and the evening moves on. But the whole thing seems to have put Gabriel in a bit of a mood–makes him want to be transported away from the unpleasantness of his own existence. So when, as the evening winds down, he sees his wife Gretta, “that there was colour on her cheeks and that her eyes were shining”, he experiences a “sudden tide of joy”. As they travel home he feels warmly towards Gretta, warmth that also turns into sexual feelings, but above all the desire to connect strongly with his wife: “He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ectasy.” All this extrapolated from the gleam that he sees in Gretta, and then just like he did with Miss Ivors, he imagines what he will do and how his wife will react.
She dashes that scene to pieces. Just as Miss Ivors has made herself unavailable to Gabriel by leaving the party, it turns out that Gretta has also made herself unavailable because the wistful glow he sensed in her was not for him at all–it was the memory of a early love, a delicate boy from Galway who may have died from exposure because he just had to see her before she went off to a convent even though he was very ill. It’s a romantic, adolescent memory even though it was a pathetic, doomed gesture. It was all very Irish. And it’s something Gabriel can’t even fight: the dude is dead. Gabriel is not without his own overweening drama so:
He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.
We readers see him as that too. All the characters in Dubliners are ludicrous figures and/or vulgarians.
And yet they are also human and worthy of being loved. And so as he contemplates his wife and her lost love, Gabriel, pathetic man that he is, experiences something that he calls love, something that conjures the ghosts, upon which the snow is “falling faintly” (224), the snow that also falls on the living, the snow that is “general all over Ireland” (223). And just as Gabriel lapses into romanticism, I think so do we as readers. By taking us through the emotional journey that Gabriel goes through and most especially by writing such a powerfully poetic ending that directly links characters from stories past to Ireland as a country, Joyce invites us to read his previous characters in that same light for the snow is falling on them too. Yes, at the same time he has undermined and lampooned such silly romanticism. But I don’t think he fully escapes it. Neither can we. Which is why re-reading Dubliners and re-reading “The Dead” at then end of re-reading Dubliners I came away with a fuller, warmer feeling towards the characters in the previous stories, pathetic though they may be.